Nonprofit pushes Chicago to build anti-racist arts community

CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago nonprofit formed to highlight the lack of leaders of color within the city’s arts and cultural systems has added a new program, aiming to imagine what the nation’s third-largest city could look like without stubborn inequities in art, theater and other institutions.

The first phase of Enrich Chicago’s new program, called Imagine Just, begins this month. The series of brainstorming sessions will ask artists, performers and other Chicagoans to imagine what an equitable arts and cultural scene could look like.

Nina Sanchez, co-director of Enrich Chicago, sees the project as an expansion of the organization’s focus on anti-racism training and education within Chicago’s arts and cultural community.

The organization was founded in 2014 by former leaders of the influential Joyce Foundation and the Auditorium Theatre. It now counts more than 50 arts and cultural organizations as partners.

But the coronavirus pandemic and widespread activism during the past year in response to George Floyd’s death highlighted stubborn inequities in all aspects of life, including Chicago’s arts community, Sanchez said.

Imagine Just is an attempt to gather and then amplify the voices of artists of color, particularly to leaders of local institutions that can feel out of reach, she said.

About a third of Chicago’s residents are white, but a 2017 survey conducted by Enrich Chicago found more than 70% of board members and other leaders at arts and cultural organizations are white. Numbers at foundations that support the arts were similarly imbalanced.

“From my point of view, artists and cultural workers have always been at the forefront of social movements,” Sanchez said. “What happened last summer showed how that is still true. We shouldn’t be doing this work without leveraging the tools we have. And what we have is an abundance of creativity.”

The MacArthur Foundation provided seed funding for the program. Cate Fox, senior program manager at the foundation, hopes the strategy becomes a model for others hoping to push for dramatic change in institutions that are often slow to embrace it.

“With the twin pandemics really laying bare the inequities in our society, we have an opportunity for change — to not just fix and tinker at the edges of systems,” Fox said. “We’re really invited to construct something new.”

Once the community sessions wrap up in August, organizers will decide how to pursue participants’ common goals.

Four artists will observe each session and create a work of art based on the participants’ ideas — in the form of a song, a dance, a painting and photography. Enrich Chicago also plans to award seed funding for some projects.

Sanchez said she hopes city and cultural leaders are more prepared for this conversation now than when Enrich Chicago was founded six years ago. Using the words anti-racism and equity at cultural leaders’ gatherings “was like a snake bite,” she said.

“People visually recoiled,” she said. “Fast forward six years, (those terms) are part of our public discourse and dialogue. That’s a radical change.”

Sanchez doesn’t use the word “if” when she imagines the effect a successful sea change in Chicago’s arts and culture.

“When we’re successful,” she said, people living in all parts of the city will have affordable access to the arts and experience creations that reflect their lives, particularly residents of color.

“All those books about anti-racism that were best sellers, I hope people read them and are ready to live them,” she said. “And that can be the hardest part.”

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